The last time I was here was to cover the story of the mid-Eighties famine for the Mirror. The story was complicated by the fact that we had Robert ‘Mercy Mission’ Maxwell for company. I was summoned to the presence for a briefing by Captain Bob. ‘First, we are going to save the starving. Second, we must do it in a low-profile way. And third, I want you to organise the TV coverage.’ Once there, a photographer and I had to exhort him not to come with us to the famine-relief stations. The picture of big fat Bob with little dying babies was the kind of bad visual the non-Mirror media would have loved. We persuaded him to stay and annoy politicians in Addis instead. A few days later, we arrived back to a note from the Captain: ‘My work here is done. I must fly back to London to resolve the miners’ strike.’
Whatever the downsides, there are upsides to the infamy of being a controversial political and hate figure for some of the sadder elements of our media. Why else would I, a very average runner, be invited to take part in the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s biggest mass-participation sports event, and to spend several days rubbing shoulders with Ethiopia’s Haile Gebreselassie and Kenya’s Paul Tergat, who between them have set 20 world records? It has cost me next to nothing because, unlike when I was Tony Blair’s communications director, I can accept the organisers’ offer of a British Airways flight and a sponsored bed in the Hilton. What’s more, I can put on my Leukaemia Research Fund running gear with the logo ‘Sponsor me, text LRF to 87140’, get myself filmed and so raise money for and the profile of a cause dear to my heart. Go on, Boris, get texting. It gives us ‘1.50 every time. If you or any of your well-heeled readers want to make a bigger donation, call 020 7405 0101.
The night before I came here, I spoke at the Foreign Press Association awards, where Amnesty International won the Best Press Office prize. But I must put in a word for the PR machine of the Ethiopian embassy in London. When I was umming and ah-ing about coming here, I got a message from the ambassador, Fisseha Adugna, who said that I was the third most famous Briton in Ethiopia after the Queen and the Prime Minister, and it would be very beneficial to our countries if I agreed to go. Though clearly nonsense, it was flattery so over the top that even I found it impossible to resist. Then the embassy press office moved in, saying that it would help their efforts to overcome an image overwhelmingly dominated by destitution if I would write ‘a diary-style piece for a leading publication to show there is more to our country than famine’. So here I am, the former spin doctor spun into The Spectator by the spin doctor of a foreign power.
The ambassador will be pleased to know that I have been impressed by progress since my last visit. There are still massive challenges. Food security and HIV/Aids remain major concerns, but Ethiopia has a lot going for it, not least its rich cultural history and a people who are among the most beautiful, dignified and elegant in the world. Also, I had the privilege of a training run with Paul Tergat and the Kenyan squad in the mountains above Addis. You’d be lucky to find better scenery anywhere. Tourism will be part of any future success for Ethiopia, and I have no hesitation in recommending a holiday here for runners and non-runners alike.
I met ambassadors galore during my time with the Prime Minister. Our man here, Myles Wickstead, is a class act. He, Gebreselassie, the former UK athlete Brendan Foster, his Nova International colleague John Caine and ex-UK marathon runner Richard Nerurkar, now an Addis resident, were the driving forces behind the Great Ethiopian Run. In that single act of leadership, Wickstead has done as much for our image abroad as some ambassadors will do in a lifetime of more traditional diplomacy, and he was mobbed when he came over the line several minutes behind me.
I went to listen to his speech to the Institute for Peace and Development, whose president, Professor Kinfe Abraham, clearly of the same school of spin as his country’s representative at the Court of St James’s, welcomed me implausibly as a ‘visiting superstar’, and I was invited to join HMA for Q & A. The questions on UK policy from Ethiopian politicians and journalists were of a far higher quality and better informed than anything I faced from members of the Westminster lobby in my previous life. The ambassador’s speech was covered by Ethiopian TV and most of the main papers, in some as the lead story. I asked if this was normal. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘and they tend to report what you actually say.’ This truly is an extraordinary country ‘ journalists reporting what public figures say, without adding their own spin. Unbelievable.
It didn’t take long to establish who really is the third best-known Brit here. A shop assistant asked if I knew David Beckham. I said I’d met him once, at a reception in Downing Street. The assistant excitedly spread the word. Soon I was being asked for my autograph by youngsters who wanted to tell their friends that they had shaken hands with someone who had actually met King David. Fame at last.
Ethiopia operates on a different calendar from the rest of the world. It is now 1996 here, so they have several years to go before millennium celebrations. I was asked whether we might fly out the Dome for the occasion. I sensed this was as sincerely meant as the words of William Hague, who was sitting just behind me on Millennium night and who, as midnight approached, with key opinion-formers still stranded at Stratford, smiled broadly, winked and gloated at me: ‘It’s going very well, isn’t it?’
Ihad a message from the editor’s secretary just before leaving for the race to say that I must say something about the Prime Minister’s health. He’s very well, Boris, and I will back him for a ten-kilometre run against Michael Howard any day of the week. And in a general election.
So, having plugged Ethiopia in a diary- style column for a leading UK publication, having completed the race, and having filed my first piece as a regular freelance contributor to the sports pages of the Times, my work here is done. I must fly home to resolve my future. Toodle pip. Vote Labour.